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France to Nigeria: It’s All One Fight Against Boko Haram and the Islamic State

French President François Hollande announced Monday that the fight against the Islamic State and Boko Haram must be considered part of the same offensive.

French President Francois Hollande (L) welcomes his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari to the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on September 14, 2015. Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari will seek support for his battle against Boko Haram on a trip to Paris that starts September 14, more than three months after he took charge of Africa's largest economy. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET        (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Francois Hollande (L) welcomes his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari to the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris on September 14, 2015. Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari will seek support for his battle against Boko Haram on a trip to Paris that starts September 14, more than three months after he took charge of Africa's largest economy. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

After closed-door meetings with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari this week, French President François Hollande announced that Boko Haram’s declaration of allegiance to the Islamic State poses a major threat to West African security and must be taken at face value.

“We know Boko Haram is linked to Daesh and so receives help [and] support from this group,” Hollande said Monday alongside Buhari at a press conference in Paris, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “The fight against Boko Haram is the fight against Daesh.”

Boko Haram declared allegiance to the Islamic State in March and has since referred to itself as the caliphate’s “West Africa Province.” But despite their claims of allegiance, there remains very little evidence of any financial or material ties between the two groups, and the United States has remained largely skeptical of the extent of any relationship between the Islamist extremists. Boko Haram was at one time funded in part by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — itself a separate group from the Islamic State — but now funds itself largely by interfering with trade routes, looting villages, and kidnapping locals for ransom. It was not immediately clear whether Hollande’s statements Monday were based on the group’s claims of allegiance or on other intelligence gathered by the French government.

But if Hollande is true to his word and takes the threat of Boko Haram just as seriously as he does the Islamic State, then the group’s strongholds around Lake Chad could be in for a surprise.

The French president announced Monday that France will for the first time launch airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, after using surveillance flights to determine whether they would be necessary. Although Hollande did not explicitly imply that France was considering bombing Boko Haram, he did point to a need to stop prioritizing one fight over the other.

“We can no longer single out terrorism according to regions,” he said. “It is the same terrorism, inspired by the same ideology of death.”

Nigeria could use some help. Surrounded by Chad, Cameroon, Niger, and Benin, all former French colonies also battling Boko Haram, Abuja came under fire during former President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure for not doing enough to beat back the group. Despite claiming a number of victories leading up to the March presidential election, Nigeria earned a reputation for refusing to collaborate with troops from neighboring Francophone countries and for taking credit for Chadian victories.

Buhari’s visit to France this week, which will last three days, is intended in large part to improve ties between the two countries and France’s former colonies. French companies are heavily invested in Nigeria, and Nigeria’s flailing economy relies on those investments as well as French contributions to security efforts in the region. France has provided significant support to the multinational force tasked with defeating Boko Haram, including surveillance flights to monitor the extremists’ movements, which are launched at Nigeria’s request.

Reports circling in Nigerian newspapers Tuesday claimed Hollande pledged further military and surveillance assistance after the news conference in Paris on Monday, but Foreign Policy could not independently verify these claims. According to Agence France-Presse, Buhari will also meet with French oil and concrete companies, including Total and Lafarge, which both operate in Nigeria.

Despite having run his presidential campaign largely on a platform of increased security, Buhari has thus far failed to make any major advances against the extremists, who have upped their suicide-bombing campaign across Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger and have reportedly killed more than 1,000 since Buhari took over in May. More than 12,000 have been killed and over 2.1 million displaced by the group since it launched its offensive in 2009.

Photo credit: DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Siobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy. @siobhan_ogrady

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